Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 66 - Kanye West

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

There are some celebrities who manage to make a career out of being a celebrity. Catapulted to stardom by some long-forgotten event, they've managed to milk their fifteen minutes of fame into fifteen years. They linger in the spotlight, popping up in a new controversy every so often, exchanging their fame for more fame. After a while, you forget why they became well-known in the first place - they're now just famous for being famous.

I have a vague memory of a time when Kanye West was famous for being a musician. That time has long since passed; his last album came and went without much fanfare, but his persistent antics - including the now infamous Taylor Swift incident, have ensured that he stays in the public eye.

In a way, it's a shame, because he's a decent musician. But, unfortunately, we live in a culture where it is very easy for the artist to eclipse the art. And truthfully, Kanye's controversies retroactively spoil some of his music. Albums like The College Dropout or Late Registration are awash with Kanye struggling with his own insecurities, particularly in living up to his mother's expectations after dropping out of school. But then you remember that Kanye made the claim that he should be in the Bible, and suddenly the albums don't seem like personal statements of independence anymore - they seem like solipsistic rants of an egomaniac.

Should the artist's actions be able to affect the art in this way? Possibly not, but it also remains the sad truth that such associations are bound to happen. Kanye is hardly a rapper anymore - Kanye is a Professional Celebrity, popping up every six months to make bombastic claims and get the bloggers all riled up.

Oh, and every so often he makes music, too. But that hardly seems to matter anymore.



MY LISTENING: I listened to The College Dropout (2004) every day this week. I also listened to Late Registration (2005) three times, Graduation (2007) twice and 808s and Heartbreaks (2008) once.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Aside from his celebrity antics, Kanye's music was pretty much everywhere around the middle of last decade. "Gold Digger" and "Jesus Walks" were two songs I remember being exposed to a lot in college, and I also had a particular affinity for "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" - mainly because I'm a big fan of the Bond movie that sample comes from.


Kanye is nothing if not creative, even if he tends to be all over the place. But his best albums are, paradoxically, a well-structured sloppy mess. I think my favorite might have been Late Registration. Kanye's biggest strength is his crazy beats, and this album has the best of them. Songs like "Gold Digger" and "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" are already a blast, songs about serious subjects soaked in irony and clever wordplay. But the beats made out of the vocals of previous songs are what help catapult the songs from the "good" to "great" category. The flow overtop vocals from Ray Charles'/Jamie Foxx's "I Got A Woman" or Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds are Forever" should by all rights be an inaudible mess - but instead it works perfectly.

The College Dropout is a little more uneven, but its high points are still fantastic. "We Don't Care," the album's first song, masterfully combines a pop hook chorus with angry, socially-aware rap. "Jesus Walks" and "Never Let Me Down" are darker tracks that still never collapse under the weight of their own message. Kanye's lyrics have the distinct ability to be simultaneously serious and ironically pun-laden at the same time. There are a few tracks when it fails, but for the most part these early albums contain the wonderful cognitive dissonance of Kanye rapping about serious subjects while somehow not taking himself too seriously.

In Graduation, Kanye lets his social conscience drop a little to have some fun. This album abandons the intricately scored beats of the first two to adopt a much more in-your-face electronic sound. It's not as rewarding to engage in close listening, but it's a hell of a lot more fun to party to - tracks like "Stronger" or "Homecoming" are joyously danceable.

808s and Heartbreaks is the black sheep of the Kanye family and it seems to be a somewhat controversial release. Here, Kanye abandons rap entirely to sing pop songs through the oft-maligned Autotune. It doesn't always work, and has the penchant to collapse into melodrama, but at it's best, like in the opening "Say You Will," 808s is a gloriously exposed minimalist exercise - an exciting turn for an artist who put out three albums of pomp and excess. I appreciate the sentiment here, even if the entire album might not hold up to the concept.


There are certain points of Kanye West's output, particularly on The College Dropout, where all the crazy samples and beats and wordplay simply inflate into so much that they become bloated and not fun anymore. Songs like "Kanye's New Workout Plan" or the seemingly endless "Last Call" are just a little too over the top for my taste. Like all talented artists, sometimes I feel that Kanye just has to establish some boundaries and reign in his ambitions. Other songs, like "Slow Jamz," are just awash with the spoken dialogue and skits that are not uncommon in rap but I've never really understood.

As I hinted earlier, 808s and Heartbreaks also presents some problems. One of the major issues is that Kanye can't sing worth a damn. Most of his songs aren't bad, and he has a surprisingly good ear for melody. But he can't pull off his own tunes. Blanketing his voice in Autotune works for some songs with that certain alien aura, but it does not work across an entire album. "Heartless" could have been a much better song, for example.

At other times, the album is just too melodramatic. This might seem like a weird complaint for an artist whose previous albums were loaded down with every trick under the sun. But Kanye's lyrical bravado, which feels in place in the dense rap of his earlier albums, seems out of place on songs like "Welcome to Heartbreak" and "See You In My Nightmares." The songs are still enjoyable, but the vocals are so masked that they're almost too goofy to take seriously.

(Although, in the interest of fairness, I only listened to 808s once. It might grow on me when I give it a second try, but it was different enough to be very off-putting on the first listen).

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: I've tackled all the existent Kanye albums, but I suppose I could move on to the albums that Kanye helped produce - Jay-Z's work being some of the most prominent.